Once upon a time stuffed in lockers with their lunch money stolen and banished to their parents’ basements, geeks now rule the world—at least in Hollywood. There’s no longer any stigma to being a science-fiction nerd, as nine out of 10 big-budget blockbusters are based on either comic books or popular fantasy novels, and movie studios spend millions of dollars to fellate the fanboys every year at San Diego’s Comic-Con.
But has this newly empowered geek culture already begun to eat its own tail? I ask after sitting through Paul, a uniquely dispiriting new comedy in which a great many extremely funny and talented people have gotten together to make a lot of pandering references. It’s a not-so-secret handshake of a movie, and I’d wager a good 20 percent of the dialogue is made up simply of famous quotes from popular science-fiction movies from the 1980s. The film has clearly been custom-engineered to score whoops of recognition from audiences, but where are the jokes?
What makes Paul even more disappointing is that it was scripted by stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, who did such a spectacular job straddling a similar sort of homage with their 2004 feature debut, Shaun Of The Dead. Their wry, knowing send-up of zombie apocalypse movies wasn’t just a genre spoof—but also full-fledged romantic comedy of its own, as if a Nick Hornby novel broke out in the background of a George Romero picture.
Pegg and Frost star again here as Graeme and Clive, two socially stunted British fanboys who visit America to attend the aforementioned Comic-Con, then hit the road in an RV to tour famous UFO sights across the heartland. Right away there’s something off, as these two are obviously at least 10 years too old for their roles. A queasily homophobic running gag involves everybody mistaking them for a couple, when, really, given their pre-adolescent behavior, Graeme and Clive should probably be mistaken for mentally impaired.
Thanks to the wonders of dramatic irony, these two accidentally encounter Paul—a bona fide extraterrestrial who just escaped from Area 51 and needs a lift after phoning home. A disarmingly rendered CGI creation, the alien gets a lot of mileage out of being voiced by Seth Rogen, whose booming profane outbursts are amusingly incongruous with his ethereal appearance. Paul smokes a lot of weed and curses a blue streak. Basically, he acts like Seth Rogen.
On their trail is Jason Bateman’s Special Agent Lorenzo Zoil (yes, that’s right,) a flippant, foul-mouthed hothead addled with two bumbling subordinates ( SNL ’s secret weapon Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio) and an itchy trigger finger. He’s taking orders from the Big Man (Sigourney Weaver) who is on hand to make tiresome references to Aliens while trying to keep Paul from ever returning to his home planet.
Along the way, our heroes pick up Kirsten Wiig’s one-eyed creationist, who turns out to be the most well-rounded character in the movie. Wiig may be broad and insufferable on SNL , but in film after film she has consistently been able to dial down the mugging and offer surprising dimensions that aren’t always there on the page. Here, her strict ideology has been shattered by the very existence of this alien, so naturally she wants to curse and fornicate and do everything that she used to consider forbidden. There are lots of cheap shots in this subplot, but it’s still fun to hear Seth Rogen make fun of creationists, and Wiig makes all the dirty-talk weirdly adorable.
Had Paul continued along these lines and grappled with a real alien life form in modern society, Pegg and Frost might really have been onto something. Instead, they fall back on fan service, growing increasingly lazy and scattershot as the reels wear on. Settings from Close Encounters, Raiders Of The Lost Ark and even Easy Rider stand in for punch-lines, while the movie bends over backward to become a geek’s Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations with characters spouting one iconic catch phrase after another. (Poor Bateman gets stuck reciting an old Han Solo line and honestly looks as if he’s never heard it before.)
Director Greg Mottola previously worked with a lot of these same people in both Superbad and Adventureland, two of my favorite comedies of recent years. He’s got a knack for playing up poignant character moments lurking just beneath the comedy, but Paul’s script isn’t geared for his sensibility. The movie fumbles and lurches around some badly handled slapstick set-pieces.
Pegg and Frost are clearly besotted with the Star Wars era sci-fi they grew up on, but their naughty extraterrestrial misfire calls to mind a different George Lucas production from that same era—they’ve accidentally re-made Howard The Duck.
Director: Greg Mottola
Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Seth Rogen
Running time: 104 minutes